Tradition Passes Down

Writer: 
January 31, 2007
Manufacturing music: students fashion handmade instruments using wood, steel wire, and scrap metal

Manufacturing music: students fashion handmade instruments using wood, steel wire, and scrap metal. Les Todd

Paul Berliner has devoted years of scholarship to preserving traditional Shona mbira music by creating a written record of the indigenous art form. Still, teaching a few Duke students the old-fashioned way, through oral tradition, can't hurt. Over the course of his academic career on the faculties of the State University of New York at Geneseo, Northwestern University, and now Duke, Berliner, Arts and Sciences Professor of music, has developed an undergraduate course based on the subject of his own research. The course, taught once a year, mixes discussions of Shona culture and history based on his own experiences and relationships in Zimbabwe (he literally wrote the book on mbira music) with musical experimentation and instrument building.

In Berliner's basement office in the Biddle Building on East Campus last spring, six students gathered in a circle on mismatched benches and chairs. In their hands, they held a karimba, a basic form of mbira. On shelves and file cabinets around the room were various African drums and gourd resonators and rows of compact discs. Berliner, picking at his karimba with his thumbs, talked about mixing vocals with instruments in an improvisatory situation. The students followed along on their instruments.

He told them to sing, "urombo," a Shona term for poverty or misfortune. "Orombo," they intoned. Berliner's voice rang out above the rest.

"The audience will think, What is this 'urombo?' " he said. "Is it a personal trouble? Is somebody making a social critique?"

Then he added "Chemutengure," an onomatopoeic word for turning wagon wheels—those of European pioneers coming to establish the colony of Rhodesia, he said. "Chemutengure," they sang.

Manufacturing music: students use Berliner's seminal book on mbira as a guide

Manufacturing music: students use Berliner's seminal book on mbira as a guide. Les Todd

Over the course of a semester at Duke, students learn to play four basic songs on the karimba. Berliner works with them to develop their repertory, experimenting with different vocal patterns as they become accustomed to the feel of the instrument.

In a workshop on the side, with the help of graduate student Todd Hershberger, Berliner's teaching assistant, students build their own karimbas using instructions included in Berliner's seminal work, The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. They chisel out a soundboard, hammer steel wire on an anvil to form keys, fasten them under a metal bridge that has been bolted down, and shape and fasten scrap metal that gives the mbira its traditional rattle.

On a warm spring day, Berliner and his class slip out the side door of Biddle and take up class on benches on the lawn in front of Branson Theater. For those who arrive late, the professor leaves an orange Post-it note on his office door, "mbira class outside," scrawled in a messy professorial hand.

Berliner, dressed in a casual button-down shirt and sandals, his Australian bush hat perched on a head of gray curls, passes around an mbira that belonged to the famous Zimbabwean musician John Kunaka. Students note that the keys have a lot of give. As they pass the mbira around, each taking a turn on it, Berliner grins and says, to no one in particular, "It just sings, doesn't it."